Tag Archives: environmental despair

Love in the Time of Extinction

For the past few weeks, Rob’s been spending his weekend days clearing the immense nonnative laurel trees from our new back yard, opening up their shadowed land to light it hasn’t seen in decades. We can now see from our living room and deck all the way into the adjacent protected wetland.

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

Apple and pear trees soaking up new sunshine

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Passings: The Ghosts of Pleasure Beach

Volcanic mountains rise in rough white-capped waves below as the jet stream carries me eastward in my metal cocoon. We pass the sharp drop of the Colorado Front Range, and I reread its geology with the familiar pleasure of an old book: a massive fault system along which twisted ancient rocks have been thrust by circumstance into aerial performance. Still further east, a formless blanket of cloud extends from horizon to horizon, obscuring rocks, rivers, towns, burying geologic and human history alike.

* * * * *

It was December 19, and I was flying from Seattle to New Jersey to help my family celebrate the life and acknowledge the passing of my uncle Ernest a few days earlier. He wasn’t a believer in God or a churchgoer, but growing up in the core of Manhattan, he and his siblings were nature lovers. Central Park was steps from their front door and, with their father and sister, the boys who were later to become my uncle and my father examined glacial scars on rocks, unearthed salamanders, watched leaves sprout in spring, glow with autumn, wither with winter. Until shortly before his death at 92, my uncle loved to walk through the arboretum in the town where he lived all of his adult life. He adopted a trail near his home and helped clear it of invasive plants, learned the birds, monitored its health.

* * * * *

In these dark circum-solstice days, I haven’t been monitoring the news. I already know that things are terrible and getting worse in Syria; that the Sudan is in crisis; that Egypt is undergoing new violence; that a year later, we’re still not sure why twenty first-graders were murdered in their Connecticut classrooms. The world’s agony leaves me gasping for breath and grasping for hope in the face of evil’s vast scale and scope.

My uncle Ernest, with more courage than I, faced human suffering and death straight on. He worked for decades as the county medical examiner, helping to solve murder mysteries. (At his memorial, a younger neighbor who’d gone into the family business of wildlife rehabilitation noted that my uncle’s dinner table was the only one he knew of where the conversation was even more graphic than at home.) Ernest loved his work, his scientist’s mind fascinated as he mulled evidence and assessed explanations for each life’s end.

* * * * *

My flight’s 3-hour delay at the Seattle airport had given me time to recover from my 4:30 am wakeup and to witness dawn from a new perspective.

Predawn fog with eagles End of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

Predawn fog with eagles
Taken from end of Concourse B, SeaTac Airport

The delay also allowed me to read a New York Times article reminding me that eBird reportings were tracking Snowy Owls in their Northeast irruption. Snowys aren’t usually found this far south, but something—perhaps a bumper crop of baby owls last year, possibly a rodent shortage—has caused them to expand from their Arctic home. Rechecking eBird the next morning at my father’s Connecticut home, I found that Snowys had been sighted along a nearby stretch of Long Island Sound, and I was hungry for a dose of nature, so my father and brother joined me in a late-afternoon search party.

Our destination was Pleasure Beach, a sandy spit south of Bridgeport. An overconfident navigator (me) erroneously sent us first to an industrial dock where doves perched cooingly, silhouetted against cathedral-sized tanks of petroleum by-products destined to be transformed into new roads through the Hudson Valley, additional parking lots for New England malls.  Remains of past organisms, exhumed from their stone crypts, wait here to be called to eliminate more trees, seal more soils, so that we might move and park a few more cars.

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility Bridgeport, CT

Doves, Peckham Asphalt facility
Bridgeport, CT

The spit’s tip seemed near through the dock structures, but we couldn’t see how to get to it from where we were, so we gave up and returned to our trusty GPS, which we could almost hear whispering “I told you so.” Finally arriving with its help at the beach parking area, I was thrilled to see a good clue to unusual-bird presence: a guy with a big spotting scope. (Size matters in the world of birding.) He pointed us down the beach, and other birders returning from their afternoon owl-watching confirmed that a Snowy had spent the afternoon snoozing on the spit.

Wetland, Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Salt marsh, north side of Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

We finally saw a second guy with a big lens and made a beeline for him—only to watch him fold it up just as we approached, saying the owl had just flown off “that way somewhere.” I gave up any real hope of finding it, but at least we’d had a good nature walk with a lovely sunset impending. Enjoying the search for its own sake, we ventured a little further, scanning the wetlands and grass for a Hedwig-shaped white blob just in case. We passed some old benches, stone jetties, rusted bits of archeology from some deceased culture.

* * * * *

More people let go of their lives in winter than any other time of year. (In my own small world, I know of at least five other deaths in the past ten days—no, now six, with a new death since I began writing.) Why? Cold makes our blood vessels constrict, meaning our hearts have to pump harder. Cold also makes us more susceptible to viruses. And if you’re elderly and perhaps already in ill health, you may be poorer and less likely to turn on the heat; you may also be more isolated and less likely to have someone notice if you’re not doing well. But I think also, the darkness must take a toll. It’s just so much to deal with, trying to keep up your spirits in the face of the weight of night.

Ernest, thankfully, was neither isolated nor poor, but he did know he didn’t have long. Adventurer to the end, though, he’d recently been trying to convince my father to come along on a February riverboat trip down the Amazon.

* * * * *

If I’d been paying better attention during our walk to what was actually around me rather than looking only for the owl, it might have occurred to me to wonder about the spit’s flattened top and the random sticks and metal poles emerging from the russet grass and shelly sand. I’d missed the clues that we were walking through what had once been Connecticut’s largest ghost town. For over fifty years, a carousel, theater, bumper cars had thrilled children and their grownups; our desolate, darkening spit had once been a vacation destination.

https://i1.wp.com/ww4.hdnux.com/photos/20/23/42/4274339/3/628x471.jpg

Pleasure Beach, about 1955.
(Click for link to source.)

Like so many other manufactured human pleasures, the thrills faded after a while, and finally a burned bridge near the dock we’d seen earlier ended Pleasure Beach’s amusement-park heyday. Children’s cheers have been replaced by gulls’ screeches. Federal regulations and a system of wildlife refuges have given threatened piping plovers and least terns a fighting chance through human detritus, and the birds are beginning to recover.

* * * * *

Ernest and I both turned toward the small places of nature after careers of scientific investigation of suffering and death. Like him, I’ve loved my work, but engaging with tragedy for a living—in my case, environmental disasters of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution—takes a deep toll.

* * * * *

Suddenly I saw the Snowy Owl. It was scanning the beach from the top of a nearby snag, preening and scratching as it prepared for a long hunt during tonight’s extended midwinter darkness.

Snowy Owl on snag Industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl on snag (upper right),
industrial Bridgeport in background

Snowy Owl at sunset Lewis Gut, Bridgeport, CT

Snowy Owl at sunset
Pleasure Beach, Bridgeport, CT

As the sunset’s glow faded and true solstice night descended, we watched the owl until the darkness rendered it a gray smudge against the dark-blue sky, city lights in the background. We started the long walk back along the chilly beach. As we crossed the last jetty, we caught a ghostly movement: the owl had been accompanying us unseen.

Snowy Owl Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh

Snowy Owl
(Bridgeport city lights across salt marsh)

It finally flew on beyond our vision, a living light adventuring into the
longest night.

Last sight of Snowy Owl

Last sight of Snowy Owl

.

In Memoriam: Ernest E. Tucker (1921-2013)

EET, always young at heart

EET, always young at heart


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Respite

“What day is it today?” Charles asked.
“Tuesday,” Linda replied.
“Good. What’s your doctor’s name that we’re driving to see?”
“Dr. Lopez.”
“That’s right! You’re doing great. Now, again, what day is it today?”
“Umm…Friday?”

A half-hour later, Charles and Linda arrived for their regular meeting with the psychologist, scheduled after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis many months earlier. When Dr. Lopez asked Linda what day it was, she couldn’t remember, even though she’d practiced with Charles over and over during the drive. And a clock was now way too complicated for her to understand.

The dark curtain of Alzheimer’s descends in inexorable stages. The very first stage must be the worst for the patient: receiving the diagnosis, but having enough awareness left to understand what’s going to happen. Then as the patient loses more cognitive awareness, the nightmare expands to the caregiver.

Charles, whom I’d met at my church, was one of the most patient people I knew. He also had a brilliant career in management, ultimately becoming a senior administrator of an international company. But managing Linda’s illness was a wholly different challenge.

“Linda, you’ve got to have three more bites,” he insisted to her at lunch during one of my visits to their home.

She looked at him resentfully. Who was this person who kept ordering her around? He looked familiar, and sometimes she thought she could remember his name, but she had thought he was a nice man, not like this.

“You have to eat! Now, take this spoon and swallow.”

Linda finally did. But she was clearly pretty annoyed about it.

As we watched over the months, kind, warm Charles became short-tempered, defensive, and irritable. His friends began to suggest he take a respite break: arrange for Linda to stay for a week, or even just a weekend, in a high-quality local nursing home. But he’d always been able to handle any situation that came his way; why should this be any different?

“She wouldn’t understand,” he protested. “It would really upset her.” And of course he was right.

Finally, though, we persuaded him to at least give it a try. Charles went to visit his son and daughter-in-law in Malibu for a week. When I talked with them about it later, they said he’d been pretty quiet most of the week. He’d gone with them on a whale-watching cruise, a visit to the museum, out to a new play, and had seemed to enjoy each activity well enough, but clearly didn’t feel like talking about Linda, so they didn’t pry. He told us later that until that week, he’d had no idea how tired he was.

* * * * *
In many ways, Charles and Linda are like millions of other Americans who currently deal with Alzheimer’s in themselves or their families. Current estimates indicate that 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s, and this number may swell to as many as 16 million by 2050. And surely at least the same number of people love and care for those with Alzheimer’s: spouses, family members, nurses, therapists, ministers. The kind of “vicarious traumatization”—or, less officiously, “compassion fatigue”—that exhausted Charles affects millions in his position.

* * * * *
Now, imagine that Charles, his son, and his son’s wife are at a pierside restaurant in Malibu, admiring the view and enjoying a delicious dinner of fried shrimp and chips. They run into Ted, a friend of Charles’s son, who sits down to join them for a while. Ted, meaning well, starts telling Charles that he shouldn’t eat fried food; especially since Charles is getting older, salads are much better for him. And besides, Ted explains, those shrimp were harvested from Thai shrimp farms that destroyed many acres of mangrove swamps that used to protect those shorelines from hurricanes.

Picture Charles as he stops eating and sits looking down at his plate; he doesn’t say anything. Everything Ted said is true.

But both Charles and Linda desperately needed Charles to take a respite from increasing darkness as the curtains of Linda’s mind were drawing permanently closed. Without taking time to open up the drapes, breathe fresh ocean air, enjoy a new horizon, and get away from the weight of continuous negativity, Charles would more quickly lose his ability to take care of her as her needs increased unrelentingly. And without a respite, his own suffering would increase: compassion fatigue brings measurable physical, psychological, and spiritual pain. Charles needed a break, not a lecture bringing even more bad news. Just for a week.

* * * * *
We who struggle to hold back the darkening curtain of environmental damage suffer compassion fatigue as well, as we work desperately to minimize the deterioration of our beloved nature. We cling to frayed threads of hope in the face of impending collapse of eons-evolved natural systems, trying to drag the curtains apart just a little, to prevent the increasing darkness from acquiring an Alzheimer’s-like inexorability.

Where is our respite? You cannot open any environmental magazine, or even a newspaper, without coming across yet more information about the devastation we humans have wrought. We read these because we care, because we want to know more about what we can do to change our culture’s behavior, our beliefs, our beatitudes of destructive consumerism and selfishness.

But sometimes we need a break. We need to return to what we love, the exhilarating and precious natural world, to extend to ourselves and each other a respite of undampened joy in the beautiful and the fascinating.

In designing this blog, I’ve intentionally stayed away from sharing yet more of the depressing, enervating environmental news that crosses my screen multiple times a day. You already know about all that. And you know where to get more of it, if that’s what you want to read on a given day to provide you with the tools you need to save what you love.

What we so often lack in these darkening days is delight.

Kathleen Dean Moore is one of my favorite nature writers, and a wonderful writing teacher and mentor. Yet I disagree full-throatedly with what she wrote recently,

And I can’t read the literature of willful innocence, either. These are nature books by authors who celebrate a beloved place without acknowledging the anthropogenic violence it’s suffering, or books that rejoice in the healing power of a hike through a forest, say, without noticing that it’s poised to burn to the ground. These days, looking away is hard to forgive.

I’ll have to stay unforgiven, I guess. I will continue to write about chickadees and bushtits, spiders and seals: small creatures of forest and sea, living their little lives in shimmering, stunning, awe-inducing ways and means. I’ll let others expound on the anthropogenic violence that pervades their world and ours. I’m convinced that we deserve a respite of delight now and then: for our own sake and for the creatures. At least, I need it.

* * * * *
Coincidentally, on the same day that Moore’s essay arrived on my Facebook page, I also received “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Jack Gilbert, courtesy of The Sun magazine. Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire remarkable poem.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

I insist on our right to be dilettantes—ones who take delight in things—and on the legitimacy of moments of joy unfettered by reminders that we’re nearing the event horizon of an ecological black hole. That doesn’t mean I’m one bit less aware of how fragile and threatened it all is. It just means I never forget why it’s worth saving.

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Black-throated Gray Warbler with nesting material
Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Tangled

The air itself seemed to be shimmering and vibrating. Always in favor of magic, I peered more closely to see what was going on.

The quivering was a crane fly, one of those bugs that look like giant mosquitoes but don’t actually bite or sting, whose long legs had gotten caught in the sticky strands of a spiderweb.

via Wikimedia CommonsAs the fly beat its wings with desperate speed, I waited for the spider to come scrambling out of one of the web’s anchor points to wrap it up for dinner.

The spider I’ve most often seen in this part of the park is the Cross Spider (a.k.a. the European Garden Spider, probably introduced from there). She’s a lovely creature, dramatically marked across her back, calm and focused even when a tiny tremor triggers her race across the web to wrap her prey in steely soft silk.

Cross Spider in her web

But this was no small tremble: the crane fly, low in volume but huge in spread at an inch and a half, was violently shaking the web in its effort to escape. Where was the spider?

Finally I realized that the web was torn and shredded beyond a day’s worth of meals. Like other orb spiders, the Cross Spider rebuilds her web each morning; this web’s architect had moved on, presumably to create a new one elsewhere. (Here’s a video of a Cross Spider in the process of weaving a new web on a recent morning.)

It’s hard enough to watch a creature struggle for life when you know it’ll shortly be consumed by a hungry predator, but now it looked like if the crane fly couldn’t unstick itself, it would simply die of exhaustion and starvation, unless a bird happened to swoop by and nab it. Yes, they only live 10-15 days anyway, but that means a crane-fly day spent struggling in a spiderweb is about equivalent to five years of dire imprisonment for a human. So naturally I wanted to free it, but it was too high for me to reach.

*****

Toward the other end of the hypsographic curve are other innocent creatures caught in tangled webs—webs indeed, like the cross spider’s, originally “practised to deceive,” to lead prey into a false belief—this time on the seafloor. These “ghost nets” trap vast numbers of victims, include those brilliant mollusks, the octopi.

Octopus vulgaris. Photo © Matthieu Sontag, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

Octopi are intelligent, playful creatures. They have personalities and think conceptually; they can unscrew jar lids and create games with water toys andjuggle tankmates.

And they die in large numbers in the deadly fishing nets lost at sea, which continue their ghost-fishing mission long after they’re abandoned by humans. In the fishing ground of one Japanese coastal municipality alone, a study estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 octopi die from entanglement in these invisible webs every single year. So do rockfish, cuttle fish, lobsters, and other finfish and shellfish. These nets can keep ghost-fishing for years before they disintegrate, if they ever do.

Yes, there’s good news—for instance, the Northwest Straits Initiative has put a lot of work into ghostbusting the lost nets in Puget Sound—but there’s a long way to go.

*****

We intelligent, playful humans are also struggling in ghost webs—for instance, of chemical sensitivity to the web of toxics woven deeply into our air, our water, our homes. As with the disused spiderweb, the chemicals were intended for other purposes, but are trapping our innocents: children and other vulnerable humans. The important work of Jennifer Lunden, Sandra Steingraber, and others in revealing this tangled web of toxicity has recently been highlighted in the New York Times, including this aptly-titled photo in a series by Thilde Jensen.

And sometimes I feel like the struggling crane fly myself, as I try to create a life of happiness and love for nature in this web of nature-denying culture I’ve been born into. How can I stay light of heart and spirit, intimate with living nature, when my feet are enmeshed in a web of car-addicted infrastructure, indoors-based education, technological communication that sucks energy from the earth, from the soul? How can I free myself from the stickiest skeins in this entangling net, those of environmental despair?

*****

When I went back to the spiderweb the next day, the crane fly was gone. I’m going to choose to believe that it finally freed itself and those tired wings found a place to rest and recover, to enjoy another few days of life.